Fraterville Mine disaster
Fraterville Miners' Circle
|Location||Leach Cemetery Lane|
Rocky Top, Tennessee
|NRHP reference No.||04001459|
|Added to NRHP||January 5, 2005|
The Fraterville Mine disaster was a coal mine explosion that occurred on May 19, 1902 near the community of Fraterville, in the U.S. state of Tennessee. 216 miners died as a result of the explosion, either from its initial blast or from the after-effects, making it the worst mining disaster in the state's history. The cause of the explosion, although never fully determined, was likely ignition of methane gas which had built up after leaking from an adjacent unventilated mine.
Shortly after the disaster, the bodies of 89 of the 216 miners killed in the explosion were buried in what became known as the Fraterville Miners' Circle at Leach Cemetery in the nearby town of Coal Creek (modern Rocky Top). In 2005, this circle was placed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.
The Fraterville Mine was one of several mines located in the coal-rich Cumberland Mountains of western Anderson County, Tennessee. The mine and its namesake community were situated near the heart of the Coal Creek Valley, a narrow north-south oriented valley slicing between Walden Ridge to the east and Vowell Mountain to the west. Tennessee State Route 116 connects Fraterville with Briceville to the south and Rocky Top to the north. This stretch of Route 116 has been renamed "Fraterville Miners Memorial Highway" in honor of the victims of the mine explosion.
Explosion and recovery efforts
The Coal Creek Coal Company, organized by Knoxville businessman E.C. Camp, began work at the Fraterville Mine in 1870. Coal Creek Coal developed a reputation for fair contracts and fair pay, and the company's Fraterville Mine was considered one of the safest in the region. The company never took part in the state's controversial convict leasing system and paid in cash (rather than scrip), and thus avoided much of the labor unrest that plagued neighboring mines during the Coal Creek War in the early 1890s.
According to the Tennessee Commissioner of Labor, the Fraterville Mine explosion occurred around 7:20 on the morning of May 19, 1902. The explosion shot black smoke and debris out the mine's mouth and ventilation shaft. Rescue efforts were organized by the mine's superintendent, George Camp (E.C. Camp's son), and a Welsh mine operator from nearby Jellico named Philip Francis. The initial rescue party penetrated to just 200 feet (61 m), however, before they were forced to turn back and await the dispersal of toxic gases. A second rescue party entered the mine at 4:00 that afternoon, and using a makeshift venting system made of cloth and creosote, they inched their way into the main shaft, where they observed the destruction, later reported by the Commissioner:
Battrices had been destroyed, and along the main entry the force of the explosion was terrific, timbers and cogs placed to hold a squeeze were blown out, mine cars, wheels, and doors were shattered, and bodies were dismembered.
Most of the miners were killed by the initial impact of the explosion, although 26 had managed to barricade themselves in a side passage. At least 10 were still alive seven hours after the explosion, but eventually succumbed to toxic air and lack of oxygen. Several miners wrote farewell messages to loved ones shortly before dying, stating they were struggling for air, and encouraging their families to "live right" so they would meet again in heaven. The last body was removed from the mine four days after the explosion.
The cause of the explosion was a matter of controversy. The report issued by the Tennessee Commissioner of Labor stated that the explosion occurred when volatile gases that "had accumulated because of inadequate ventilation" were ignited by an open light. While the report stated that the shutdown of the mine's ventilation system over the previous weekend had allowed the dangerous build-up of the gases, ventilation furnace operator Tip Hightower was acquitted of negligence at a subsequent inquest. The report also suggested that gases had leaked into the Fraterville Mine from an adjacent abandoned (and unventilated) mine once operated by the Knoxville Iron Company. Along with Hightower, superintendent George Camp was also charged with negligence, but was acquitted after several hours of tearful testimony.
The community of Fraterville was devastated by the mine explosion. The town lost all but three of its adult males. Hundreds of women were widowed, and roughly a thousand children were left fatherless. Some families lost as many as eight family members. A large memorial service was conducted at the Briceville Community Church on June 8, 1902.
Eighty-nine of the deceased miners are buried in the Fraterville Miners' Circle in Leach Cemetery (behind Clear Branch Baptist Church) just off U.S. 25W at Rocky Top. A monument at the center of the circle bears the names of all 184 miners who were identified. On May 19, 2005, the circle was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Other miners who lost their lives in the Fraterville disaster are buried in Longfield Cemetery on U.S. Route 441 just east of Rocky Top.
- Allen Coggins, Fraterville Mine Disaster. Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture, 2002. Retrieved: 5 May 2009.
- Coal Creek Watershed Foundation, Coal Creek: War and Disasters. 2000-2009. Retrieved: 5 May 2009.
- Amanda Post and Emily Robinson, National Register of Historic Places Registration Form for Briceville Community Church and Cemetery, October 2002.
- Coal Creek Watershed Foundation
- Fraterville Mine Explosion - Tennessee State Library
- Carl Fritts website on the disaster
- List of miners who lost their lives
- Final letters from victims
- Coal Creek, TN Fraterville Mine Disaster, May 1902 at GenDisasters.com